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For decades, Anne Tyler’s best-selling contemporary fiction has focused on the influence and centrality of family, relationship, and place. Tyler gained national fame when her novel The Accidental Tourist (1985) was produced as a major film. Her prominence was heightened when she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons (1988). Tyler’s construction of character and setting, along with her notable themes of family, identity, and love situate her fiction within the literary traditions of realism and Southern regional literature.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up on Quaker Communes
Tyler was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on October 25, 1941, to Lloyd Parry Tyler, a chemist, and Phyllis Mahon Tyler, a social worker. As members of the Society of Friends, her family moved frequently, often living in Quaker communities in the Midwest and South, before settling in North Carolina. Tyler’s childhood was marked by her parents’ hunt for a commune where they could observe their faith through a life of noncompetitive simplicity. In the Celo commune, one of the longer-lived of utopian experimental communities located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Anne and her siblings learned of nature, folkways, literature, and other subjects as they were home-schooled. The Tyler children attended public school when the family moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1952. Anne proved to be an excellent student who enjoyed art. She often painted families with a keen eye for detail, foreshadowing her future of creating pictures with words. Tyler attributes being raised in a series of communes as an experience that made her look ”at the normal world with a certain amount of distance and surprise, which can sometimes be helpful to a writer.”
Tyler finished her college undergraduate work (in three years) at Duke University, during which time she was the student of Reynolds Price, who himself would become a major novelist and longtime friend. After receiving her BA from Duke University in 1961, Tyler attended Columbia University where she completed her doctoral course work (but not the dissertation) in Russian and then worked as a Russian bibliographer at Duke.
Early Married Life and “Southern” Books
In 1963 Tyler married Iranian-born child psychologist (and novelist) Taghi Mohammed Modaressi. She and her husband moved to Montreal, where he completed his residency while she served as assistant to the librarian at McGill University from 1964 to 1965. During her time in Montreal she published her first novels, If Morning Ever Comes (1964) and The Tin Can Tree (1965), and gave birth to her daughters—Tezh in 1965 and Mitra in 1967. The family then moved to Baltimore, where Tyler raised her daughters and polished her prose. Writing before the women’s-rights movement expanded careers for women outside the home, Tyler focused on her family. Her prolific output is due to her ability to maintain the division between her private and public life.
Having grown up in North Carolina, Tyler initially considered herself a Southern writer. Her first three novels—If Morning Ever Comes (1964), The Tin Can Tree (1965), and A Slipping-Down Life (1970)—were set in North Carolina and bear, in their focus on the eccentricities of family life and the strong influence of the past upon the present, a resemblance to the Southern Gothic tradition of William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and especially Eudora Welty, whom Tyler later met and befriended.
Breakthrough Novels in Baltimore
The Clock Winder (1972) marked two important changes in Tyler’s career and foreshadowed the great success she was to enjoy beginning in 1982 with Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982). The first is that, though eccentric, characters remain her hallmark, as in The Clock Winder, they are part of or connected to families rather than merely lone individuals seeking whatever fate may afford them. The second adjustment is that in The Clock Winder she found Baltimore the proper backdrop for her fiction. Far more often than not, it has been her setting since.
With the publication of A Slipping-Down Life and The Clock Winder, Tyler began to receive more serious and positive critical attention, but only in the mid-seventies, when such writers as Gail Godwin and John Updike called attention to her, did her novels benefit from widespread recognition. Tyler’s stature as an important literary figure was confirmed by the success of Morgan’s Passing (1980), which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award and received the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize.
The Pulitzer Prize and Hollywood
Tyler addresses more complex domestic-psychological issues in her later works. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, finalist for the 1983 Pulitzer Prize, is the chronicle of a dysfunctional family whose children keep returning to the site of their childhood abuse. Although Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant traces the evolution of the fictional Tull family from roughly 1925 to 1979, its theme of child abuse is particularly relevant to the 1980s, the decade in which the novel was published. The first national studies to determine the prevalence of child abuse were conducted in 1974; five years later, the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act mandated periodic National Incidence Reports. The 1988 Study of National Incidence and Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect arrived at a total of 1.5 million abused or neglected children, and their report broke down the statistics into three categories of abuse—physical, sexual, and emotional.
Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist was awarded the National Book Critics Award in 1985 and subsequently became a film featuring William Hurt and Geena Davis. The film version of The Accidental Tourist, which increased Tyler’s fame, deals with the grief of Macon Leary, whose marriage collapses after the murder of his son. Critics find Tyler at the height of her powers of observation in Breathing Lessons, honored with a Pulitzer Prize in 1986. The novel presents a poignant portrait of a beleaguered marriage.
Family Life with Diversity
Tyler remains concentrated on the family with insight, humor, and hope. Her 2001 novel Back When We Were Grownups was written in reaction to her husband’s death in 1997 and focuses on a widow trying to reconnect with her own identity. A television movie adaptation of the book was released in 2004. Tyler’s 2006 novel Digging to America takes up the issue of international adoptions—specifically the adoption of Asian children by American families. Tyler’s focus reflects a growing trend in the United States: in 1999, the U.S. State Department statistics indicate that half of the 17,000 adoptions of children from foreign countries by American parents were from Asian countries, such as China, India, Vietnam, and Korea. Many adoptive parents struggle with the issue of how or whether to teach these adopted children about the cultures of their birth countries. This struggle is the subject of Digging to America, in which two couples adopting Korean daughters make very different parenting decisions.
Tyler continues to live and work in Baltimore.
Works in Literary Context
Tyler’s works reveal familiarity with an extended literary tradition, with influences ranging from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau to William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. The narratives of Tyler, brimming with an amiable realism and vulnerable idiosyncrasy, come to life in characters invested with what is distinctive and grand about humanity.
Southern Literary Tradition
The connection between family, place, and identity in Tyler’s novels is a recurring topic of critical discussion. She is often placed within the context of the Southern literary tradition, and her work is frequently associated with the key figures of that movement. Her early years in the South formed the background for Tyler’s Southern literary flavor. Tyler was particularly inspired by two Southern literary regionalists, Eudora Welty and Reynolds Price. From a 1980 interview with Welty, Tyler mirrors what critics have written of her, portraying Welty as ”pleased by words, by ways of saying things, snatches of dialogue overheard, objects’ names discovered and properly applied.” Tyler’s storytelling reflects a like attention to idiom and detail as well as the influence of the Southern allegiance to setting as integral to character and destiny.
American Realists and Experimentation
Following World War II, American writers began to create innovative and self-aware works shaped by popular culture. Tyler’s fiction, according to Sanjukta Dasgupta in Indian Journal of American Studies, reflects the postmodern ”fusion of social and individual consciousness with an emphasis on the latter.” From chronicling the elite classes of society, writers increasingly experimented with influences of media and commonplace language. Tyler’s narratives and characters echo this realism in the terrain of their everyday life. Employing language and place of ordinary people navigating everyday existence, Tyler and other American realists, as Alfred Kazin describes, ”evidence our writers’ absorption in every last detail of this American world, together with a subtle alienation from it.”
Works in Critical Context
Tyler’s canon has a good deal of consistency: a tone of amused detachment, an interest in domestic life, and a sympathetic portrayal of eccentric characters uncannily similar to many readers’ relatives. Her work is as remarkable for its originality of plot as for its ingeniously conceived characters and polished prose.
The Accidental Tourist
The Accidental Tourist was Tyler’s tenth novel, and by the time it was published in 1985, critics had grown to expect a certain type of work from the author. Most critics agreed that while the work was distinctly Tyler, it was also her most accessible and successful novel. Author Larry McMurtry, writing in The New York Times Book Review, notes a couple of shortcomings—such as the imperfect handling of two intriguing characters—but ranks it as one of Tyler’s best books. Jonathan Yardley, in his review for the Washington Post Book World, declares, ”With each new novel… it becomes ever more clear that the fiction of Anne Tyler is something both unique and extraordinary in contemporary American literature.” Yardley calls it ”a beautiful, incandescent, heartbreaking, exhilarating book,” and concludes, ”Words fail me: one cannot reasonably expect fiction to be much better than this.” Other critics, such as Rhoda Koenig, were complimentary but not overwhelmed. In her review for New York Magazine, she applauds the author’s way with words but not her overly cute treatment of the banal, noting that the book ”is pleasant enough to read, but irritating when you stop.”
Breathing Lessons, Tyler’s eleventh novel, represented a subtle but discernible shift in tone that, as the novel presents a journey of marriage—Ira and Maggie’s—as a very rocky road, so the most faithful of readers may find it a similar trip. ”Tyler’s strongest card,” notes critic Robert McPhilips in The Nation, ”is her ability to orchestrate brilliantly funny set pieces and to create exasperating but sympathetic characters.” McPhilips observes, In the past, Tyler has used her magic to illuminate seemingly drab lives. Here, she forces one to confront directly lives that even willful magic can’t fully alleviate.rdquo; Hilma Wolitzer, in her review for the Chicago Tribune, calls it Anne Tyler’s gentlest and most charming novel and a paean to what is fast becoming a phenomenon—lasting marriage.” Wolitzer compliments the author’s eye for detail and notes that the book contains ”scenes of wonderful tenderness and humor.” Similarly, Richard Eder, writing for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, notes that while the book might not be her best, it may be her funniest,” and also observes that the book contains moments more powerful and moving, I think, than anything she has done.”
- Bail, Paul. Anne Tyler: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.
- Croft, Robert W. An Anne Tyler Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.
- Grove, James. ”Anne Tyler: Wrestling with the Lowlier Angel.” Southern Writers at Century’s End. Ed. Jeffrey J. Folks and James A. Perkins. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.
- Voelker, Joseph C. Art and the Accidental in Anne Tyler. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1989.
- Brookner, Anita. ”A Disturbing Absence of Disturbance.” Spectator 294 (January 3, 2004): 29-30.
- Dasgupta, Sanjukta. Towards Harmony: Social Concern in Anne Tyler’s Fiction.” Indian Journal of American Studies 27 (Winter 1997): 71-75.
- Eder, Richard. Crazy for Sighing and Crazy for Loving You.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (September 11, 1988): 3.
- Gibson, Mary Ellis. Family as Fate: The Novels of Anne Tyler.” Southern Literary Journal 16 (Fall 1983): 47-58.
- Jacobs, Rita. Review of Back When We Were Grownups, by Anne Tyler.” World Literature Today 76 (spring 2002): 154.
- Koenig, Rhoda. Back in Your Own Backyard.” New York Magazine vol. 18, no. 34 (September 2, 1985): 59-60.
- Mathewson, Joseph. ”Taking the Ann Tyler Tour.” Horizon: The Magazine of the Arts 28 (September 1985): 14.
- McMurtry, Larry. ”Life Is a Foreign Country.” The New York Times Book Review (September 8,1985): 1, 36.
- McPhilips, Robert. ”The Baltimore Chop.” The Nation 247 (November 7, 1988): 464-66.
- Stephens, Ralph. ”Welty, Tyler, and Traveling Salesmen: The Wandering Hero Unhorsed.” The Fiction of Anne Tyler (1990): 110-118.
- Wolitzer, Hilma. ”’Breathing Lessons’: Anne Tyler’s Tender Ode to Married Life.” Chicago Tribune (August 28, 1988): 1, 9.
- Yardley, Jonathan. ”Anne Tyler’s Family Circles.” Washington Post Book World (August 25, 1985): 3.
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